The scale of the spying cooperation between the United States and Germany has unleashed a political fracas in Berlin, testing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “teflon” talent to shake off controversy.
Ms. Merkel’s staff is being accused of allowing the country’s foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, to spy on European politicians and firms, including German companies, on behalf of the U.S. National Security Agency. Critics also say officials in her government lied about the prospects of a U.S.-German “no-spy” deal before the 2013 election.
On the defensive, Ms. Merkel told reporters earlier this week that Germany has to collaborate with the NSA to combat terrorism. She said members of her staff, responsible for intelligence oversight, have acted “to the best of their knowledge and in good conscience.”
The spying attacks have already prompted the Airbus group to press charges.
Polls indicate the spy scandal is beginning to hurt the chancellor, among Germany’s most popular politicians. The Infratest Dimpap poll showed Ms. Merkel’s approval rating down five percentage points, although still relatively high at 70 percent. Only her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, came away better with 74 percent.
German industry is among those concerned over the allegations that the BND helped the Americans engage in corporate espionage.
The spying attacks have already prompted the Airbus group to press charges against persons unknown. Brigitte Zypries, a senior official in the economy ministry in charge of coordinating aviation and space policy, told Handelsblatt it was time for "the incident to be cleared up."
Ms. Zypries, a member of Social Democrats, said she understood why Airbus pressed charges. "Airbus is a publicly traded company and has to do something, if only to avert potential liability," she said.
Economy Minister and SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel has also been pressuring Ms. Merkel to clear up the BND scandal. He wants to know when and to what extent she knew about the BND helping the NSA spy on European companies.
That is where the two clash: While the chancellor claims information about intelligence operations needs a high level of confidentiality, the German parliament has the right to be informed.
The dispute over possible industrial espionage has worsened the mood in the coalition of the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. "The issue is not a suitable early-campaign issue," said Patrick Sensburg, the Christian Democrat chairman of the NSA investigative committee, noting that Germany's reputation is at stake. "A final assessment of the case is not credibly possible at this time."
Add to that the dispute over the no-spy treaty. In August 2013, just weeks before the national election with the public angered over the extensive NSA spying activities revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Germany had received a no-spy agreement from the United States.
But e-mail correspondence and documents between Berlin and Washington show the United States was against such an agreement.
Making public claims of reaching a no-spy agreement was a "clear campaign move,” said Hans-Christian Ströbele, is a Green Party member of both the NSA investigative committee in the Bundestag and the parliamentary panel in charge of monitoring Germany’s three intelligence agencies, including the BND. "That's why the public and the entire parliament has the right to learn the truth."
Wikileaks, the whistleblower website, published transcripts of 'unclassified sessions' of Germany’s parliamentary inquiry into NSA activities.
Meanwhile, details about the BND-NSA collaboration keep coming to light.
On Tuesday, Wikileaks, the whistleblower website, published transcripts of “unclassified sessions” of Germany’s parliamentary inquiry into NSA activities on German soil and its collaboration with BND. While some of the 1,380 transcripts are in the public domain, many were withheld or heavily redacted, and some show discrepancies between public and private sessions of the inquiry
The website of Die Zeit newspaper also reported that the BND, which collects up to 220 million pieces of mega data per day, sends about 1.3 billion pieces per month to NSA.
The data incudes raw contact details and times of activity of phone calls and text messages but contains no content. Much of the data material is on foreign communications in crisis regions, according to Die Zeit.
The material is passed on to the NSA through the BND listening station in the Bavarian town of Bad Aibling,
Rumors are circulating that the government may be unable to keep the lists of controversial search terms secret for much longer. The chancellery is said to be discussing the issue with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Donata Riedel and Thomas Sigmund in Berlin contributed to this story. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]